In defense of Youth Sunday
When I first interviewed for my current position, I remember asking the pastors, “How are youth involved in worship?”
Their answer to this question was important to me because I was coming from a non-denominational setting wherein we had a separate youth worship service concurrent with “big church.” One of the reasons I was in the process of leaving that church was because of my belief that such a model hurts, rather than helps the faith formation of teens.
In response to my question, I was told, “Once a year, we have Youth Sunday where our high school teens lead every part of our worship service.”
Unfortunately, I wasn't super satisfied with that response. So I pushed.
“How else are teens involved in worship?”
Eventually, I learned that weekly worship also included teens as acolytes, ushers, lectors, and communion deacons. More importantly still, after accepting the position, I quickly learned how much my colleagues value both the presence and involvement of kids as well as high school teens in worship, something for which I continue to be thankful.
That said, we still do Youth Sunday every year. In fact, right now, I'm knee deep in preparation for this year's Youth Sunday. For that reason, Ben Irwin's article, “Why it takes more than a “Youth Sunday” to show kids they matter” recently caught my attention.
I actually agree with much of what Ben says in this article.
Youth Sunday shouldn't be the lone Sunday each year when teens are involved in worship.
That said, even if it is, I'm no longer convinced that Youth Sunday deserves the bum reputation it so often gets among church workers. When done well, Youth Sunday can actually be a valuable tool in the faith formation of teens.
After seven years of trying to figure out how to make this happen, here are 5 things I've learned to do to make Youth Sunday an important part of the faith formation of teens.
1. Explain from the get-go that leading worship is a privilege and responsibility, not a performance. While we practice a LOT for Youth Sunday, we do so not because our goal is perfection but rather because we want to be able to lead our congregation well and eliminate anything that might distract them from Jesus.
2. Separate Youth Sunday from other milestones. Like Ben, the church I grew up in traditionally held it's Youth Sunday the week after we returned from our mission trip. This meant that every aspect of this service revolved around the mission trip. As a result, church felt far more like a mission trip celebration (which is, in fact, important) than a worship service. What's more, because every facet of the service was about the mission trip, we never actually learned about worship from this practice. Similarly, when I first arrived at my congregation, Youth Sunday was also always the same week we recognized our high school graduates. The entire service felt like an “ode to seniors” rather than worship. Since then, we've separated these traditions. Now, Youth Sunday is held a different week each year, preferably during different church seasons. Because of this, as we plan Youth Sunday – something we start doing months before the actual service – teens learn about the rhythm of the church year and, in particular, about the purpose of different church seasons.
3. Dig deeply into the day's Scripture passages as you prepare for Youth Sunday. My congregation is a liturgical one. Among other things, this means we follow the lectionary. This means that as with every Sunday of the year, rather than giving the preacher the ability to randomly select what Scripture passages they'd like to use, the Scripture passages for Youth Sunday are assigned. They're what Christians throughout the world read on that particular day. Because teens aren't necessarily familiar with the day's readings, we spend a lot of time during our Youth Sunday preparation studying our Scripture passages, wrestling with how they're connected to one another and to the larger story of Scripture, and using Lectio Divina to reflect on what they mean to us.
4. Tie your music to the day's Scripture passages. Far too often, Youth Sunday becomes a day to showcase the favorite hymns of your congregation's teens. Instead, help teens brainstorm music that ties in with the day's Scripture passage and themes. Teach teens how music is another way of proclaiming God's message. Do so using whatever your congregation's usual hymnody actually is. If your congregation uses traditional hymns, encourage teens to pick from those when choosing the day's music. Doing so helps teens to dig into the lyrics of those hymns and in the process, learn to appreciate and value them. It also helps unite the congregation on Youth Sunday rather than divide it. When you choose songs your congregation already knows, you send a message of inclusion, saying you value the larger church – not just for the ways it provides funding for the youth, but for the ways it actively teaches youth about faith. It's worth noting that if you come from a more traditional congregation, you can find other ways to incorporate more contemporary songs in worship. For example, in my congregation, rather than force our parishioners to learn a whole host of unfamiliar songs, teen sing contemporary Christian music as special music. Even then, however, rather than choose the latest greatest song in Christian music, we choose songs that further proclaim the day's message and theme.
5. Treat sermons as a way for teens to practice sharing their faith with others, something that contributes greatly to the faith formation of teens. Rather than allow teens to talk about whatever they want, coach those who are preaching. Teach them how to integrate their story with God's story and with the larger story of your congregation. Then work with them to write and deliver their message in a compelling way.
Make no mistake, Youth Sunday is far from a perfect tradition. That said, Youth Sunday doesn't have to be demonized either. Instead, by following the steps above, it can be used to impact the faith formation of all who are involved in it.